~I didn’t invent this, but I’m not sure whom to give credit to. If you know, please message me!~

(This method is used for our in-person gatherings, along with our COVID Safety protocols.)

The Bird/Cat/Dog Method is a way of collectively using a shorthand to communicate comfort levels with closeness.

After 2+ years of social distancing, isolation, and possible trauma regarding closeness and touch, we are creating a new culture around gathering: one that assumes a variety of comfort levels when gathering to sing.

Folks are asked to choose which of three animals describes their comfort level with being approached, and identify as such (until or unless their feelings change).

We wear stickers (of a bird, cat or dog respectively) and also identify ourselves vocally during introductions.

This is designed to be flexible and non-linear in its changes. We are not collectively, steadily progressing toward everyone feeling comfortable hugging again; that’s not the goal.

Rather, the goal is to practice identifying your own comfort levels on a given day and speaking up for them, while noting and respecting the comfort levels of others, using a playful, low-pressure, communal language.

You might choose one animal upon arrival, and feel like choosing another animal by the end. Or perhaps you’ll pick your animal for the day based on how high or low COVID rates are that week. Your animal might be chosen for you by your plans later that week, or if you have someone in your life who needs the added protection of you staying distant yourself, so you don’t bring COVID or other illness home to them.

Birds, Cats and Dogs all have wonderful, unique qualities about them. They are not better or worse for having different traits. They simply represent, in a neutral way, the splendid variety of valid ways to be in the world.

Birds: would prefer not to be approached. They are comfortable at a distance. This doesn’t mean we ignore them. Smile at birds, sing to them from afar, wave and dance around them. Just give them 6′ of space unless or until they come to you. (You never know – sometimes when a bird feels safe it might just fly over and perch near you. But they prefer to do the initiating of that closeness.)

Cats: are ambivalent, or slow to warm, but are open to being physically close in the right circumstances. Approach too quickly or grab them in a hug, and a cat might dash off. As we emerge into a world of singing together again after so much isolation, it’s imperative that people’s nervous systems are able to relax. If you approach a cat, it’s polite to mask up before approaching closer than 6′, and ask before touching.

Dogs: can’t wait for you to come on up and hug them. They are ready to mingle up close and mask-less, indiscriminately within the group.

How it works:

These examples mostly use hugs, but apply to all forms of closeness available at a singing circle.

The animal you’ve chosen doesn’t tell you how to approach people: rather, it tells others how to approach you.

•For example, a Dog should not go bounding up to a Bird mask-free, expecting a hug. But they could do that with another Dog.

•A Bird who sees a Dog they know and feel safe with might decide they want a hug or to sing together, so the Bird could go over and initiate that, knowing the Dog welcomes close company.

•A Dog might see a Cat they know well and want to hug them hello. The Dog can put on their mask and approach, or stay 6′ away to chat with them, and ask whether the Cat would like a hug.

•A Cat might want to hug a Bird they know, but seeing that they are a Bird, should stay 6′ away and offer a wave and a smile instead. Verbally asking a Bird from 6′ away if they would like closeness (a masked hug, for example) is okay, but be very ready for and supportive of a “no.” Be happy to offer a non-touch alternative like a friendly wave or heart-shape with your hands. The Cat and Bird can enjoy each others’ company from a distance.

This enthusiastic support for each other’s boundaries helps remove subtle shame or judgement that can creep in when folks go against the grain of the dominant culture (for example, being a Bird in a roomful of Dogs.)

As an Ubuntu choir, we are living and practicing Ubuntu in everything we do. When we remember that our choices affect one another, we are practicing Ubuntu. As such, we are making choices to make our community’s culture as safe as possible, for as many different kinds of people as possible.

Harmony is not Unison: Unity is not Uniformity. We can have different experiences, comfort levels, needs and personalities, and still belong to a cohesive community that celebrates our differences and commonalities alike.

photo borrowed from NY Times